There is an unspoken rule among motorcycle racers: you always ride, no matter what. Broken bones are shrugged off, bruises laughed at and only very severe injury is enough to keep riders off their bikes. There is one exception, and that is one honored more in the breach than in the observance: brain injuries (usually contusions and concussions) and broken vertebrae are taken deadly seriously, and if suspected will make the normally extraordinarily lenient medical staff of the Clinica Mobile hesitate to give a rider the all-clear.
So naturally, when Casey Stoner took two months away from racing to treat an illness that stubbornly refused to be diagnosed despite being examined by a trail of doctors around the world, a blaze of rumors swept through the MotoGP paddock. As there was apparently nothing wrong with the Australian, it had to be something else. Some said he was a broken man, and could no longer cope with the mental pressure being applied to him by Valentino Rossi. Others claimed that he hated Europe and wanted to leave MotoGP altogether, asserting that Stoner's preferred option was to go and race V8 Supercars in Australia instead. Some alleged that the problem was being caused by Stoner's poor diet and exercise routine, the 2007 World Champ surviving on chocolate and vitamins, rather than nutritionally-balanced meals. The most bizarre rumors involved friction within the team, caused by Ducati team boss Livio Suppo having made a pass at Stoner's young wife.
Whatever the real cause of Stoner's problem, opinion in the paddock was almost unanimous before Stoner's return to racing at Estoril. No one who had ever taken time away from racing to recover from a series of vague and poorly-defined complaints had ever returned to their pre-absence form, and, it was feared, much the same fate awaited Casey Stoner. Upon his return, the consensus ran, he might turn up at the front every now and again but he would never be the force that he was in 2007 and 2008. Nobody else before him had, so why would Stoner be any different?
You Talkin' To Me?
At Estoril, Stoner faced down his critics, first in a press conference in Ducati's hospitality unit, and then on the track. After the press conference - which left the media with more questions than answers - the paddock gossip continued, opinions largely unswayed by Stoner's explanations. After the race, much of the doubt was gone. Stoner had run a strong, fast consistent pace, unable to match the scorching tempo which Jorge Lorenzo had laid down, but still good enough to secure 2nd in the race. Still, it was just one race, the doubters said. Running well in one race may be regarded as good fortune, to run well at the next, in Australia, would be definitive.
Arriving at Phillip Island, however, the attention of the press was distracted by the title fight. New life had been blown into the championship at Estoril, after Jorge Lorenzo dominated the race and Valentino Rossi struggled. With the gap now closed to 18 points, the championship was far from over. Three races were left, and the title looked like going down to the wire. If Lorenzo could claw a few more points back in Australia and Malaysia, the title would be decided at the final race of the year at Valencia. And with Rossi's awful record at the Spanish track over the past few years, Lorenzo would be in with a chance of defeating the 8-times World Champion, in a straight fight on the same bike.
Two By Two
Once practice was underway, it became apparent that the tables had been turned. Valentino Rossi was fast from the start, just as he had said he needed to be after the disastrous race in Portugal. His team mate, however, was stricken with illness, a suspected case of food poisoning leaving Lorenzo weakened and unable to concentrate on finding the necessary setup. The Spaniard was struggling, and three quarters of a second off his team mate's pace.
As strong as Rossi was at Phillip Island - and he truly excels here, despite not having won here since 2005 - one man was stronger. In front of his home crowd Casey Stoner was unleashed, staying one step ahead of Rossi from the second session of free practice onwards. The Australian would start his home Grand Prix from pole position, though he had taken it by just five hundredths of a second.
If the gap between Stoner and Rossi was small, the distance back to 3rd place on the grid was much larger. Nearly three quarters of a second separated Dani Pedrosa from Casey Stoner, with Jorge Lorenzo just one thousandth of a second behind Pedrosa. The Fantastic Four had split off into pairs, the Australian and the Italian eying each other at the front, and the two Spaniards set to duke it out behind.
At least that was the theory. As the starting lights faded and the wail of the 800cc MotoGP bikes reached a crescendo, Dani Pedrosa set out to ruin the plot which practice had drawn up so neatly. The Repsol Honda man got another lightning start, his job made easier by starting from the front of the grid. Beside him, Casey Stoner won the drag race off the line from Valentino Rossi, the Ducati slotting in behind the Repsol Honda but comfortably ahead of Rossi's Fiat Yamaha.
While the front row of the grid had gotten a quick and clean start, trouble was brewing further down the order. After getting off the line reasonably well, Jorge Lorenzo suddenly found himself being swamped. Mika Kallio had taken a rocket start, firing forward to draw level with the Spaniard as the pack approached the first corner. Lorenzo drifted left, forced off line by the Pramac Ducati, and towards the tail of Nicky Hayden, who had shot past on the outside.
Unfortunately for Lorenzo, he closed on Hayden just as the American was starting to brake for Turn 1, slamming the front wheel of his Fiat Yamaha into the rear swingarm of Hayden's Ducati and destroying his own front brake and damaging the rear of Hayden's bike. With no front brake, Lorenzo decided he had two choices: run on through the gravel at Doohan, and try to get the bike stopped in the grass on the other side of the Southern Loop, or try to make the corner. He chose the latter option, but that turned out to be the wrong one, Lorenzo's rear sliding out under him and sending him tumbling through the gravel. Jorge Lorenzo's race ended in Turn 1, and his title hopes along with it. The fault, Lorenzo conceded, had been his and his alone.
Nicky Hayden managed to hold his Ducati upright through the gravel trap and across the grass, and the American rejoined the race at Turn 3. But like Lorenzo, Hayden's race was effectively over too. His bike damaged and difficult to ride, Hayden decided to keep circulating in the hope that it might rain, bringing out the white flags and allowing him to change to an undamaged bike. The rain never came, and Hayden was left 25 seconds behind the leaders and losing ground every lap.
Back at the front of the race Pedrosa had his hands full. The Spaniard may have been first off the line, but this merely put him directly in the line of fire of Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. Stoner buzzed angrily at Pedrosa's tail like a furious horsefly, indignant at finding the orange Repsol Honda in his path. He wasted no time in attacking, diving inside Pedrosa at Honda Corner. But he was in too hot this time around and Pedrosa immediately swooped back underneath on the exit to the corner.
It was clearly to be just a temporary reprieve. Stoner was back on Pedrosa's tail by the time they ran up Lukey Heights, though he was too far behind to attempt an attack. Instead, he regrouped and concentrated on what his next opportunity might be.
Stoner chased Pedrosa down the front straight, closing as they ran through Doohan towards the Southern Loop. The Australian ran fast through Turn 3 again, lining up another lunge through the Honda Corner, and this time he was close enough to slam the door on Pedrosa and his RC212V on the exit of the turn. Stoner now had what he wanted: Clear track ahead and a rider between himself and Rossi, the only man capable of matching his pace.
Valentino Rossi had entirely different ideas. Seeing Stoner get past Pedrosa, he knew he could not afford to tarry. Rossi set about Pedrosa as eagerly as Stoner had, hunting down the Honda through Hayshed and up Lukey Heights. There he worked his MG magic, running round the outside over Lukey to dive ahead into MG corner, putting a block pass on Pedrosa to ensure he stayed ahead as they flicked back left again for the two long left handers leading back onto the straight. Rossi was cleanly past into 2nd, but his lead was minimal. As they headed across the line for the end of the 2nd lap, Pedrosa drew almost level, but coming into the braking zone for Doohan corner he was forced to yield. Rossi was free to give pursuit to Stoner once again.
Being passed by Rossi did not mean that Pedrosa's troubles were at an end. Alex de Angelis, who had got past Mika Kallio on the first lap, was trailing what remained of the Fantastic Four and had latched onto Pedrosa's exhaust. The Gresini Honda man followed Pedrosa around the track for the first few laps, but Pedrosa's pace was just beyond what De Angelis could manage without overstretching himself. On lap 5, De Angelis had to let Pedrosa go, and both the Repsol Honda man and the Gresini rider were forced to ride their own pace, a long and lonely race looming ahead of them.
Where The Action Is
Behind De Angelis a real race was starting to unfold, with Toni Elias, Mika Kallio, Randy de Puniet, Andrea Dovizoso and Colin Edwards slugging it out for 5th in a no-holds barred knock-down-drag-out brawl that would last most of the race. James Toseland, desperate for a good result, tagged along on the back of this group for a while, but the Yorkshireman's luck remained as dismal as ever. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was called in for a ride-through penalty, punished for moving while the lights were still red. Toseland rode through shaking his head in disagreement and fury, but even a protest by team manager Herve Poncharal couldn't help. Toseland may have jumped the start, but the infraction was barely visible, and certainly brought the Briton little advantage. Such has been JT's year.
Toseland's team mate was having better luck. Having muscled his way to the front of the group, Colin Edwards quickly took over 5th and left the rest behind. Edwards' pace was much quicker than the Hondas, Ducati and Hayate which made up the chasing pack, and Edwards headed off in pursuit of De Angelis. But the time the Texan had taken to cut through the battling bunch had given the man from San Marino a head start of 5 seconds. It was to be a long and lonely chase that Edwards had ahead of him.
At the front, Valentino Rossi's chase was a good deal less solitary. Once past Pedrosa, the Fiat Yamaha man had closed down Stoner and sat snugly in the exhaust fumes of the Ducati. At first it looked like Rossi was simply biding his time, waiting for his chance to pounce, but as the laps progressed, it was clear that this was deceptive. When Rossi did attempt a pass on Stoner, he was obviously pushing beyond the limit, sailing into Doohan and the Southern Loop barely in control, only just hanging on to his Yamaha M1.
The Italian was being forced into trying in the first part of the circuit because Casey Stoner had Rossi's favorite passing place - round the outside over Lukey before diving up the inside at MG - firmly under control. Rossi was blisteringly fast up the hill and then down dale, but Stoner was just as quick. No advantage could Rossi gain through the back part of the track, and so he had to switch tactics.
The Hard Way
And so he turned to turns 1 and 2, but his switch was costly. Each attack that Rossi placed here was met with an immediate response from Stoner, and the two stalked each other round the track for lap after lap. On lap 19 Rossi threw caution to the wind, and having cut the gap to the Australian he tried once again. He ran hot round the outside at Doohan, hitting the rumblestrip on the exit early, almost level with Stoner and seemingly perfectly placed to hold the inside line through the Southern Loop, grabbing the lead in the process. But Rossi was running too hot, The Doctor having trouble keeping his M1 off the grass and on the curbstones, the bike shaking and weaving violently beneath him. The attempt was too much, and Casey Stoner held on to the lead easily, Rossi losing half a second and forced to start the process all over again.
For the remainder of the race, Rossi went about building his next attack a good deal more circumspectly. With Lorenzo out, scoring points was more important than taking victory. Rossi closed on Stoner a couple of times, but each time decided attacking was too risky, settling instead for 20 points. Nearly three quarters of a second behind the Australian as the crossed the line to start the final lap, Rossi gave up his pursuit and took the points.
One lap later, Casey Stoner crossed the line triumphant. The Australian had taken victory at his home Grand Prix decisively, though only by the skin of his teeth, pulling out all the stops to keep Rossi behind him. Stoner had run a special Australian-themed livery at Phillip Island, his bike and leathers predominately white with traces of red instead of the other way round. In the post-race press conference, Stoner thanked Marlboro for allowing him to run the color scheme, an unusually public mention of the sponsor and a peace offering to the company which had been so vocal in their criticism of his decision to take the time off to recover from his illness.
But Stoner's victory was a vindication of that decision, and he said afterward that this was probably the most special victory of his career. In just his second race back in the saddle, Casey Stoner had proved that being away from the sport does not necessarily rule you out from ever being competitive again. In fact, Stoner said that he had never felt better after getting off the bike than he did at the end of the Australian race. Given the strength of this performance, that must be a very sobering thought for his competitors.
Valentino Rossi may have been forced to settle for 2nd but he was not too unhappy with his result. It was the hardest he had ever had to fight for 2nd place, he said after the race, and the way he had barely managed to hang on when trying to pass Stoner confirmed just how tough a race it had been. Taking 2nd place at Phillip Island was not so much a decision for Rossi as a necessity.
The points Rossi took in Australia, capitalizing on the misfortune of his team mate, swung the championship pendulum back firmly in The Doctor's favor. Rossi increased his championship lead to 38 points over Jorge Lorenzo, and took a very firm grasp on his 7th MotoGP title. If Rossi finishes 4th at Sepang next week, the title will be his.
Dani Pedrosa crossed the line a lonely 3rd, once again over 20 seconds down on the leaders. Pedrosa's irritation with Honda is starting to rise to the surface once again, and the Spaniard made some implicit criticism of the state of the RC212V after the race. The 3rd place was all that he had been capable of, Pedrosa said, finishing in that position for the third time in a row. It shouldn't be possible that he keeps finishing 20 seconds behind the leaders, Pedrosa told the Spanish press. The series now heads to two tracks where Pedrosa and the Honda have traditionally done well, and the Spaniard will be hoping for better things at Sepang and Valencia.
Same Again, San Marino
Alex de Angelis crowned a very strong 4th place finish in typical fashion. The Italian pulled a huge wheelie to celebrate as he entered the front straight, but wildly misjudged his position. He drifted left, approaching the pit wall at an alarming speed, and only just managed to put the front wheel down and miss hitting the wall, kicking up a cloud of dust in his pit crew's faces. De Angelis' 4th place was exactly what he needed, as his representatives, along with representatives of the cash-strapped Team Scot Honda team are due to meet with the authorities from the San Marino tourist authority, in the hope of raising enough funds for De Angelis to race the Scot Honda bike next season.
Colin Edwards had got by the group chasing the man from San Marino too late. By the time he was past, he was 5 seconds down on De Angelis, and could only managed to cut the gap to 3. Afterward, Edwards described his race as a bit of a snoozer, but soporific or not, his 5th place finish consolidates his reputation as the best of the rest.
Like Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso managed to slip away from the group too late and rode a similarly lonely race to finish 6th. Dovizioso continues to test Ohlins suspension on his RC212V, but a 6th place finish behind two satellite bikes is not really satisfactory for the factory Repsol Honda rider. Improvement is needed, both for the bike and for the rider.
Marco Melandri and Randy de Puniet were all that was left of the group that had been slugging it out in the early part of the race. While the rest of the riders left them to it, either inching away from the front or dropping off the back, the Hayate and the LCR Honda kept sniping away at each other, swapping places to the line. In the end, Melandri came out on top, taking 7th place and his best finish since Donington.
A Long Way From Home
Mika Kallio had dropped off the back earlier, and came home disappointed in 9th. The Finn complained of a tire problem on his Pramac Ducati, the front showing extremely heavy wear. Kallio is likely to be joined by next year's team mate Aleix Espargaro at Sepang next weekend, and will need to be on his toes not to get beaten by the Spaniard.
10th place in the race went to Toni Elias, also complaining of a tire problem. The Phillip Island circuit is extremely hard on tires, but tire problem or no, Elias did his bid for the Scot Honda - his if his current team mate Alex de Angelis doesn't secure the ride - no good at all. Elias will need more from Sepang.
The two Suzuki riders came home in 11th and 12th, Chris Vermeulen beating out his team mate Loris Capirossi in a dismal outing at their bogey track. Suzuki have always run badly at Phillip Island, and despite a special test here earlier this year, they struggled again. The trouble the team is in was illustrated by the fact that Loris Capirossi had to start from the back of the grid after already having run through all of his engine allocation, using a 6th engine in just 5 races. With 2 more to go, Capirossi may become a regular fixture at the back of the starting grid.
Gabor Talmacsi had one of his better races on the Scot Honda, but he continues to struggle. Talmacsi only just managed to take 13th place ahead of James Toseland, after Toseland was forced to take a ride-through penalty, losing 20 seconds in the process. The Briton was furious after the race, refusing to believe he moved and fuming at the harshness of the penalty. 2010 has been a very difficult year for Toseland.
Nicky Hayden cruised around at the back of the field, nursing his damaged Ducati home for a solitary point. The rain he had been waiting for never came, and he was lapped by Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi with just under two thirds of the race gone. This is the third race that Hayden has been bumped off the track through no fault of his own, and the Kentucky Kid will have to hope for better luck at Valencia, the next left-handed track he excels at.
Best Served Cold
When Casey Stoner took the decision to miss three races, MotoGP followers immediately declared his career was effectively over. No one had ever come back from a situation like Stoner's ever before, and the parallels with Freddie Spencer and Manuel Poggiali were all too clear.
Nobody bothered to tell Casey Stoner, though. The Australian came back strong at Estoril, but at Phillip Island, he was almost imperious. Stoner was close to his 2007 form once again, rarely off the top of the timesheets and lapping fast, smooth and gloriously in control. Stoner appears to be a law unto himself, the exception that proves the rule. And this must worry the remainder of the Fantastic Four, for with Stoner back to full fitness, he is going to be a very hard man to beat indeed.
Even though the real story of the race was Casey Stoner's return to dominance, another important piece in the championship puzzle fell into place at Phillip Island. Jorge Lorenzo made what he described as a rookie mistake, and paid the price. You can't win the race in the first corner, the old saying goes, but you can certainly lose it there. Lorenzo may have lost more than just the race, he may also have lost the championship.
A New Error
Lorenzo's misfortune underlines the strangeness of the title fight this season. It has truly been a comedy of errors, the momentum in the championship changing hands repeatedly as first one rider then the next made a costly mistake. Jorge Lorenzo crashed at Donington, then at Brno, handing Valentino Rossi a 50 point advantage. Then Rossi crashed at Indianapolis, cutting his lead in half again.
Badly botching his setup at Estoril, the Italian cut his deficit even further, to just 18 points. And here at Phillip Island, Lorenzo tried to make up for a poor weekend in the first corner, and handed Valentino Rossi another 20 points on a plate. Rossi now takes an almost unassailable lead into Sepang, a track he has always gone well at. But this is 2009, and seemingly anything can happen. He could wrap up the title in Malaysia, or he could find himself just 13 points ahead. The rule still holds: If you want to win a title, you can't afford to make mistakes.